Ukraine Court Orders Access Blocked to 400 Websites for Ties to Russia

A court in Kyiv ordered internet regulators to block over 400 websites in the country, many of them allegedly having ties to the Russian government, Ukrainian media reported Wednesday.

Ukraine is currently at war with Russia-backed separatists in its eastern Donbass region, where fighters in both the Donetsk and Luhansk areas have declared themselves sovereign state entities. Kyiv regularly accuses the Russian government of exacerbating violence in the area; Moscow claims the fighters are merely ethnic Russians who are not tied to the Russian military.

Russia is also illegally occupying the Crimea region of Ukraine after invading and “annexing” it in 2014.

The Ukrainian news agency UNIAN reported that the district court in Kyiv ordering the blocking of the sites listed 426 offending outlets related to “a criminal offense under Part 3 of Article 190 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine (gross fraud, or fraud committed through unlawful operations involving computers). The sanction provides for imprisonment for a term of three to eight years.” The court has not sentenced anyone to those terms, however, and this week’s ruling did not appear to target any individual in particular, only order limits on access to the websites in question.

The ruling bans Ukrainians from accessing 426 websites and can be appealed, though at press time the appeals process, if there is to be one, has not yet begun.

UNIAN noted that the ruling followed a similar declaration on Tuesday blocking several channels on the encrypted messaging application Telegram — similarly, channels Kyiv believed were “Russian assets.” The outlet linked the shutdown to Ukrainian intelligence experts finding evidence of “subversive” activity by “a massive Russian intelligence network” in the country.

Earlier in the week, Ukrainian officials revealed more concerning online behavior: hacking attacks on websites belonging to Ukraine’s security service and other defense or strategic sites. This time, however, the government did not blame the Russian government directly, though it had done so for other attempted hacks.

Ukrainian authorities have escalated their targeting of alleged Russian disinformation at a time in which more Ukrainians than ever rely on the internet to keep up with news. A poll by marketing analyst Research & Branding Group found that over half of Ukrainians prefer the internet as a news source to television, the Kyiv Post reported Thursday. A minuscule two percent of the country prefer news on the radio or in print newspapers.

“Just four years ago, in 2017, only 38% of Ukrainians were getting information from the web, while 58% preferred television,” the Post noted. The poll also found that Russian social media sites were losing popularity, with a growing number of Ukrainians are turning to American outlets like Facebook.

The widespread action against websites or other media that Kyiv considers hostile to Ukraine’s sovereignty this week follows significant unilateral action on the part of President Volodymyr Zelensky to limit Russia’s influence in the country, given the delicate state of affairs in both Crimea and the Donbass region. Zelesnky took the bold step of banning several television networks from the country in early February tied to Russian businessman and close friend of President Vladimir Putin, Viktor Medvedchuk, identifying the networks as propaganda for an “aggressor country.”

Preemptively responding to free speech concerns, Zelensky said in remarks in a meeting with European leaders that the decision had been difficult and was “by no means an attack on free speech.”

“Sanctions against the media are always a difficult decision for any government except an authoritarian one. This decision was not a spur-of-the-moment decision,” Zelensky said, “but one that had been in the works, based on information over a long time from many Ukrainian government agencies.”

Unlike the Kyiv court website shutdown, Zelensky’s move as president is more definitive and not subject to appeal.

The presidential move banned Medvedchuk’s three networks: 112 Ukraine, NewsOne, and ZIK. The three issued a joint statement condemning Zelensky for what they called “political repression.”

“With one stroke of a pen, Zelensky threw out 1,500 journalists and other employees of the three stations into the street and deprived millions of people of the right to receive objective information,” the networks’ statements read.

In another move apparently meant to curb Russian influence in the country, Zelensky banned “Sputnik V,” Russia’s homemade Chinese coronavirus vaccine candidate, from use in the country. Ukrainian health officials explained in a decree that no vaccine created “in a state recognized by the Ukrainian parliament as a state aggressor” would receive approval. Russia is the only country so designated.

Putin approved the distribution of Sputnik V within Russia last year prior to the completion of Phase III clinical trials, raising suspicions of the product’s effectiveness and safety internationally. While states allied to Russia, particularly those with insufficient access to Western vaccines, have purchased doses, much of the developed world has shunned the vaccine candidate.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kulebo referred to Sputnik V as “a hybrid weapon of Russia against Ukraine.”

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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